The latest brainstorm from the Chinese Communist Party is a system for monitoring the Internet activity and financial transactions of its citizens, computing a “social credit” score on the acceptability of each person’s behavior, similar to the credit ratings compiled by financial institutions.
In fact, traditional credit ratings will be part of the social credit score. It is part of Beijing’s grand plan for transforming the Internet from a medium of intellectual freedom into an instrument of authoritarian control, collectively known as “Internet Plus.”
This chilling example of Orwellian oppression is handled with remarkable indulgence by China expert Rogier Creemers for CNN. “China’s opinion of the Internet is changing,” he observes mildly at the beginning of his piece. “No longer distrusted as a possible destabilizing force, the country’s leaders are embracing it with a more assertive and ambitious approach. Called ‘Internet Plus,’ this strategy combines stricter censorship and content monitoring with efforts to insert information technology into most aspects of everyday life.”
Creemers describes China’s planned system as an effort to “leverage the explosion in personal data generated through smartphones, apps and online transactions in order to improve citizens’ behavior,” with a goal described by the Chinese communists as “improving sincerity in government affairs, commerce, and social interactions.”
In other words, the system will aggressively employ the Internet to spy on citizens during every moment of their lives, mixing in “government information” (i.e. the already imposing mountain of data Chinese agencies compile on citizens, especially the lively ones) and data from private business operations, plus performance data from each subject’s occupation.
To get an idea of what the system will be like, consider that one of the anti-social behaviors Beijing wants to detect and sanction is “rumor-mongering.” Part of the sales pitch to Chinese citizens will be a promise that the system will also help battle government corruption. One suspects good party credentials will factor very heavily in these social credit scores.
The most fearsome part of the CNN story is that Creemers finds this surveillance state nightmare compatible with certain strains of American social engineering ideology [emphasis added]:
However, this trend towards social engineering and “nudging” individuals towards “better” behavior is also part of the Silicon Valley approach that holds that human problems can be solved once and for all through the disruptive power of technology.
In this approach, debate about ends and means is derided as unnecessary interference in the improvement of the human lot.
Human beings are reduced to a set of numbers indicating their performance on pre-set scales, on their eating habits, for instance, or their fitness regimen, which they are then challenged to improve.
In other words, one way to look at the social credit system is not as a perversion of the promise of information technology, but as the logical culmination of the increasing generation and processing of data.
The very fact that information exists means that companies and governments will seek to harness them for their own purposes, be these political or commercial.
In many cases, civic oversight is lacking. In China, this is due to Party-State politics, while in the West, it often steps from a techno-optimist attitude in which government only tends to get in the way of things.
In that sense, perhaps the most shocking element of the story is not the Chinese government’s agenda, but how similar it is to the path technology is taking elsewhere.
This will become a very broad path, if control of the Internet is handed over to international authorities with even less respect for free speech and privacy than America’s elites have been displaying lately.